Young Children's Attitudes Toward the Disabled: A Classroom Intervention Using Children's Literature

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1 Early Childhood Education Journal, Vol. 24, No. i, 1996 Early Childhood Special Education Young Children's Attitudes Toward the Disabled: A Classroom Intervention Using Children's Literature Mary L. Trepanier-Street 1,3 and Jane A. RomatowskF With the increasing inclusion of special needs children in regular classroom s, experiences which encburage positive attitudes toward the disabled are essential. The purpose of this project was: 1) to examine the ~nkigg~,and attitudes of young children regarding the capabilities of disabled children and the potential for friendship and 2) to assess the effectiveness of children's literature and related activities in influencing attitudes toward the disabled. Results suggested that children's attitudes were generally positive and realistic regarding the capabilities and the potential for friendship with the disabled. The use of selected children's books and book related activities positively influenced children's attitudes. KEY WORDS: attitudes; children's literature; disabilities. INTRODUCTION As a consequence of federal and state legislation, more children with special needs are being included in regular early childhood classrooms. In addition, for many young children, the early childhood classroom is often where their special needs first become identified. Thus, the goal of educators is to create a classroom experience where all children, disabled and nondisabled, have the opportunity for maximum cognitive and social growth. While many have acknowledged the benefits of inclusion for special needs children, these benefits, particularly in the social affective realm, are possible for the nondisabled children as well. As a consequence of learning together, nondisabled children grow in knowledge, perspective taking, empathy, and acceptance of the disabled. Such growth, however, will require planned intervention by the classroom teacher. ~Professor of Education and Director of Early Childhood, University of Michigan-Dearborn. Wrofessor of Education and Associate Dean of the School of Education, University of Michigan-Dearborn. 3Correspondence should be directed to Mary L. Trepanier-Street, Ed. D., The University of Michigan-Dearborn, School of Education, 4901 Evergreen Road, Dearborn, Michigan PRIOR RESEARCH Since young children are in the process of developing attitudes, it is important to investigate the nature of their knowledge, understandings and attitudes toward the disabled. The early childhood years may be a critical period for classroom intervention. Research on the nature of knowledge and attitudes of preschool and primary children toward the disabled is somewhat limited. A study by Cruz (1987) explored the knowledge and attitudes of primary age nondisabled children concerning visual, hearing, and orthopedic impairments. Kindergarten through third grade children were asked about their knowledge of various handicapping conditions, their preferences for friendship, for helping and playing with the disabled, and their evaluations of the work/task performance of the disabled. Nondisabled children preferred children with orthopedic impairments for friendship; auditory impairments for play; and visual impairments for helping. The author concluded that nondisabled children perceived disabled children in terms of their limitations and have a narrow view of disabled children's abilities to make contributions. Other research suggested that preschool children showed a preference for a nondisabled adult over an orthopedically disabled adult (Cohen, Nabors, & Pierce, 1994; Nabors & Morgan, 1993; Nabors, Cohen, & Morgan, /96/ / Human Sciences Press, Inc.

2 46 Trepanier-Street and Romatowski 1994). The research on classroom intervention strategies assumes that the attitudes in young children toward the disabled need to change and can change toward a more positive direction. The research findings have supported this position. Studies exposing the child directly to a disabled person have resulted in some change in attitude. For example, Cohen, Nabors and Morgan (1994) reported that while a nondisabled adult was preferred over an orthopedically disabled adult, increased exposure to the disabled adult in two play sessions increased preschool children's comfort level with the disabled adult. Esposito and Peach (1983) reported that direct contact with severely disabled peers in planned structured activities resulted in more favorable attitudes among nondisabled kindergarten children. Intervention studies involving curriculum materials rather than direct contact have also resulted in changed attitudes in children. In a study by Harvey (1985) first, third and sixth grade children's knowledge and attitudes toward the moderately retarded were assessed before and after a planned classroom intervention. The intervention consisted of multimedia presentations of factual information and learning activities about the moderately retarded. Results suggested that while the intervention was successful at all grade levels, first grade students scored lower on the pretest prior to the intervention and showed the greatest amount of Change O n the posttest. The author concluded that young children did not yet have well-developed attitudes and may be more positively influenced by a planned intervention. An intervention study (Jones, Sowell, Jones, & Buffer, 1981) with 8- year-old nondisabled children suggested that the utilization of simulations, interviews, films, and discussions could positively influence children's perceptions of disabled children. In another study (Monson & Shurtleff, 1979), the use of filmstrips and the reading of selected children's books related to disabilities led to positively altering the attitudes of 5- to 8-year-old children toward children with physical disabilities. Also, a 5-year intervention program utilizing puppets and scripts focusing on disabilities showed positive changes in attitudes (Binkard, 1985). Becker, Baskin, and Lennox (1982) as reported in Baskin and Harris (1984) found that 6- and 7-year-old children who were read stories containing characters with disabilities showed increased positive reactions to the disabled. Hagino (1980) also reported that books were successfully used with young children to encourage acceptance of special needs children. Likewise, Mauer (1979) found that 4- to 7-year-old boys who were read a story describing a friendship between a disabled and nondisabled child were more accepting of a disabled boy as their friend. Contrary to the findings of others, a research study by Beardsley (1982) with third graders found that the reading of books focusing on disabilities did not change their attitudes toward the disabled. This study did not, however, include bookrelated activities, discussion, or any other active classroom strategies. Also, the author reported that the somewhat positive attitude at the outset may have left little possibility for change due to treatment. To support the importance of follow-up activities, Salend and Moe (1983) also found that exposure to books alone did not promote change. However, when books were combined with activities that highlighted critical information about the disabled, the intervention was successful. In sum, the research seems to suggest that young children's knowledge and attitudes toward the disabled can be positively influenced by selected classroom intervention techniques. It also suggests that changing the attitudes of children may not be an easy task but rather requires active, multiple classroom intervention strategies. Prior research has also indicated that the strategy of reading selected books and conducting related book activities may be an effective method for changing attitudes. As Baskin and Harris (1984) suggested, children's literature meets all the standards of using an intervention strategy in that: 9 children's literature is readily available and is at a low cost; 9 teachers are already trained in the technique; 9 literature is already a central component of the curriculum; 9 the study of literature can promote identification with characters, modeling of appropriate behaviors, and interaction with others; and 9 stories can be adapted to meet individual children's needs. DESCRIPTION OF PROJECT The purpose of this project was twofold: (1) to further examine the thinking and attitudes of young children regarding the capabilities of disabled children and the potential of friendship with them and (2) to assess whether the classroom intervention technique of the reading of selected children's literature and related book activities could positively influence children's thinking and attitudes toward the disabled. Participating in the project were 71 kindergarten and first grade children (38 boys and 33 girls) ranging in age from 61 to 83 months (mean age = 70 months). Children were enrolled in three classrooms with two different experienced teachers in two different schools.

3 Young Children's Attitudes Toward the Disabled 47 Children were from low to middle socioeconomic and culturally diverse backgrounds and resided in a large metropolitan area. To assess attitudes and knowledge about the disabled, the children were individually administered an attitude inventory by a trained research assistant. The inventory was designed specifically for this study. Its design was based on a prior pilot using similar-age children to establish its appropriateness. The attitude inventory was given as a pretest followed by the classroom intervention occurring over an 8-week period, followed by the same attitude inventory as a posttest. The attitude inventory consisted of presenting to each child pictures in random order of young children with the disability of blindness, deafness, Down's syndrome, cerebral palsy, and muscular dystrophy. For each picture, the examiner identified the disability with a brief description. For example, "This is La Shana. She has trouble walking. La Shana has cerebral palsy and uses braces and crutches to walk. I'd like to know what you think La Shana can do" Then, each child was asked whether they thought the pictured disabled child could do the following activities: throw a ball, play house, read a book, build with blocks, go swimming, listen to a story, paint a picture, do counting, play on a climber, and write a story. These questions were asked for each disabled child pictured. Following this questioning, the children were then asked if any of these children could be their friend, and if not, why not. If the child responded "yes" to the friendship question, the child was asked to identify which disabled child could be their friend. Children were given five opportunities to identify the disabled children as potential friends. The attitude inventory for each child was approximately 20 minutes in length. The intervention component of the project consisted of the reading of six selected children's books each focusing on a particular disability and the implementation of book-related activities. The intervention activities were conducted by the classroom teacher who had participated in a training session at the university. The six books used in the project were carefully selected by the researchers. The books selected portrayed similar-age disabled children in a positive, yet realistic, manner involved in activities and situations relevant to young children and had age appropriate text and illustrations. A complete listing of the books used can be found in the references. While the same books were used, the book-related activities were chosen by the classroom teacher. Suggestions and examples of book-related activities had been given at the prior training session. Examples of the book-related activities used were dictated stories, classcreated books, art experiences, retelling the story with puppets, and listening and speaking with an invited speaker with a disability. PROJECT FINDINGS The children's responses to the pretest and posttest attitude inventory were examined. Table I summarizes the group's pretest and posttest "yes" responses, that is, the disabled child can do the questioned activity. In general on both the pretest and posttest, children had a positive view about the capabilities of the disabled child. While they do not believe they can do everything that most children their age can do, they do think that the disabled child has many capabilities. Children particularly perceived the Down's syndrome and the deaf child as capable of doing many child-appropriate activities. Also, young children make realistic judgments about the capabilities of the disabled. For example, they view children with physical disabilities as able to do more academic type of activities (child who is blind able to listen to a story, child with cerebral palsy able to do counting, child with muscular dystrophy able to read a book) and having more difficulty with physical activities (child who is blind less able to play on the climber, child with cerebral palsy less able to throw a ball, or child with muscular dystrophy less able to go swimming). While the differences between the pretest and posttest results are not substantial (given the relatively high pretest results leaving little opportunity for larger change), some interesting trends can be observed. When the data are examined in a global or cumulative manner, some positive change from pretest to posttest is evident. Fifty questions (ten questions for each of the five disabled children) were asked on the pretest and on the posttest. Of the 50 questions, for 33 (66%) questions the frequency of "yes" responses on the posttest was greater than on the pretest, with an additional five (10%) remaining unchanged. This finding indicated some overall positive change. In response to the question whether any of the disabled children could be their friends, some positive pretest to posttest change could also be seen. On the pretest, 52 (72%) responded "yes" to this question while 60 (85%) responded "yes" on the posttest. When asked which child could be their friend, the first choices on the pretest and on the posttest were: Down's syndrome 14 (20%) pretest, 23 (32%) posttest; muscular dystrophy 16 (23%) pretest, 16 (23%) posttest; blind nine (12%) pretest, six (8%) posttest; deaf three (4%) pretest, nine (13%) posttest; cerebral palsy three (4%) pretest, three

4 84 48 Trepanier-Street and Romatowski 1 ~e ~o I ~o

5 Young Children's Attitudes Toward the Disabled 49 (4%) posttest. It should be noted that some children who responded "yes" said all the children could be their friend and did not identify a particular child for their first choice. An examination of the "no" responses and reasons why tile disabled children could not be their friend, suggested a positive trend. On the pretest, 18 children responded "no" while 11 responded "no" on the posttest. Of the 18 pretest children, six children had particularly negative reasons why the disabled children could not be their friend. Responses included, "They all have something wrong with them"; "I hate them. They're ugly"; "All of them are messed up"; "Some are retarded"; "All of them have something wrong"; and "He can't hear, she can't see, she can't walk, she can't walk, how could they be my friends?" On the posttest, only two of the 11 children gave negative reasons. The one child who responded "He can't see...how could they be my friend?" changed to "Maybe. he can't hear, she can't see, she can't walk and she can't walk." Another child's reason was "One is sick, one can't walk, this one can't hear." Given that there were only two negative responses, it seems then, that there was some positive change on the friendship issue. CONCLUSIONS The results of this project suggest that kindergarten and first grade children do, indeed, have views about children with disabilities and that these views are relatively positive and differentiated, that is, they make distinctions between physical and academic activities and the type of disability. They also see a potential for friendship with a disabled child. This project also suggested that the attitudes of young children could be influenced positively by a planned classroom intervention. These results are similar to the results of previous research (Monson & Shurtleff, 1979; Becker, Baskin, & Lennox, 1982; Hagino, 1980; Mauer, 1979). The use of selected children's books focusing on disabilities in combination with book-related activities can be an effective classroom strategy for promoting positive attitudes. With the increasing availability of books about the disabled, such a technique can be easily incorporated into the curriculum. However, it seems that to be effective, the intervention should be planned, intensive, purposeful, and sustained over a period of time. The occasional reading of a book generally will not be intensive enough to modify attitudes. With the increasing inclusion of special needs children in the regular classroom and with the increasing visibility of the disabled in the community, media, and advertising, young children today as compared to previous generations are far more exposed to the issue of disabilities. While direct contact and exposure is a starting point, the development of knowledge, positive attitudes, and acceptance of the disabled will require planned curliculum interventions. CHILDREN'S BOOKS Fassler, J. (1975). Howie helps himself. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman & Co. Lasker, J. (1974). He's my brother. Chicago, IL: Albert Whitman & Co. Litchfield, A. (1976). A button in her ear. Niles, IL: Albert Whitman & Co. Litchfield, A. (1977). A cane in her hand. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman & Co. Rabe, B. (1981). The balancing girl. New York: Penguin Books. Rabe, B. (1988). Where's Chimpy? Niles, IL: Albert Whitman & Co. REFERENCES Baskin, B., & Harris, K. (1984). More notes from a different drummer: A guide to juvenile fiction portraying the disabled. New York: R. R. Bowker. Beardsley, D. (1982). Using books to change attitudes toward the handicapped among third graders. Journal of Experimental Education, 50, Becker, S., Baskin, B., & Lennox, S. (1982). Young Children's Reactions to Disability as Depicted in Their Drawing of Disabled Fictional Characters. Unpublished manuscript, State University of New York at Stony Brook. Binkard, B. (1985). A successful handicap awareness program--run by special parents. Teaching Exceptional Children, 18, Cohen, R., Nabors, L., & Pierce, K. (1994). Preschoolers' evaluations of physical disabilities: A consideration of attitudes and behavior. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 19, Cruz, J. (1987). Interaction preferences of nonhandicapped children. ERIC Document Reproduction Service, No. ED Esposito, B., & Peach, W. (1983). Changing attitudes of preschool children toward handicapped persons. Exceptional Children, 49, Hagino, J. (1980). Educating children about handicaps. Childhood Education, 57, Harvey, R. (1985). Elementary students' perceptions of the moderately mentally retarded. ERIC Document Reproduction Service, No. ED Jones, T., Sowell, V., Jones, L, & Butler, L. (1981). Changing children's perceptions of handicapped people. Exceptional Children, 47, Mauer, R. (1979). Young children's responses to a physically disabled storybook hero. Exceptional Children, 45, Monson, D., & Shurtleff, C. (1979). Altering attitudes toward the physically handicapped through print and non-print media. Language Arts, 56, Nabors, L., Cohen, R., & Morgan, S. (1994). Becoming comfortable with an adult with an orthopedic handicap: Preschool children's behaviors in context. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 15, Nabors, L., & Morgan, S. (1993). Preschool children's verbal responses and attitudes toward an adult with an orthopedic handicap. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 5, Salend, S., & Moe, L. (1983). Modifying nonhandicapped students' attitudes toward their handicapped peers through children's literature. Journal for Special Educators, 19, 27.

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